PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
A little before 10 p.m. on Friday, Nik Wallenda slipped into his red jacket and black track pants, pulled on the special elk-skin boots made by his mother that grip the wire when wet, and joined his family and some close friends in a nearby field. They held hands and prayed.
Then the 33-year-old daredevil climbed up on a platform near a corner of the mighty Horseshoe Falls and waited. And waited. And waited and waited and waited some more.
“That’s the thing about live television,” he said. “It’s all about hurry up and wait.”
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He waited so long, in fact, that his legs began to cramp up – clearly not a good thing for a guy who was about to go for a planned 40-minute stroll (it actually took only 26) on a two-inch steel cable across the wind-swept Niagara Gorge. In the end, however, Wallenda stepped into history, becoming the first person in more than 100 years to cross the gorge on a tightrope and the first to go over any portion of the falls.
Ever the showman, Wallenda bent to one knee as he approached the end of his journey, pumped his fist in the air and actually sprinted the last few steps off the wire and into the arms of his parents, his wife and children, who had come back across the border into Canada before the walk began. More than 100,000 fans erupted in cheers as Wallenda virtually dashed to safety.
“I was excited,” he said moments afterward. “That’s why I did that.”
Wallenda is the first person to cross the gorge since James Hardy performed the stunt in 1896.
As Wallenda left the start point in Niagara Falls, N.Y., yells and the flashes of cameras could be heard and seen across the river. He disappeared into the night, only to emerge some 15 minutes later like a ghostly apparition stepping from the swirling, changing, twisting mist, which proved to be a problem for the Floridian.
“The mist was so thick, so challenging, those winds hit me from every which direction, was definitely more than I expected for sure,” he said. ”I was very focused, the wind was definitely something you could not train for. The mist was powerful, the mist was in my eyes.”
Wallenda had done his best to prepare during practice sessions at the Seneca Casino when he was sprayed with firehoses and buffeted by giant fans.
Upon his arrival in Canada, Wallenda, drenched with water and looking exhausted and relieved, was met by Canadian Border Service Agency officers who asked to see his passport. When asked what the purpose of his trip to Canada was, Wallenda replied “to inspire others.”
“I’m so blessed, the amount of people that have watched this has been just breathtaking,” he said.
Tourism Minister Michael Chan represented the Ontario government. Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati was also at the finish point.
Crowds arrived later than expected. Police were anticipating closing the Niagara Parkway at 4 p.m., but that didn’t happen until after 7. Once people started showing up, however, the roadway was clogged, making even pedestrian traffic impossible. The street was jammed from Table Rock well past Murray Street. No one budged. All eyes were on Wallenda.
“It’s wonderful seeing so many people in the park,” said Niagara Parks Commission Chairwoman Janice Thomson, who was never personally in favour of the event, but knew there was no choice but to embrace it once it became clear that the Ontario government wanted it to take place – a message that was delivered from the premier’s office.
Thomson paid tribute to the Parks staff for pulling off an event of such magnitude with “professionalism.”
“Everyone worked so hard. They wanted this to be a success. And they’re so good at it.”
They had better be good at cleanup, too. A crowd of 100,000 (6,500 were estimated on the American side) leaves quite a mess, especially when no one is able to move to find garbage containers.
Thomson said the walk “captured the imagination of millions and allowed Niagara Parks to showcase its beauty and put our national treasure – the falls – on display for the entire world to see.”
The Parks Commission 80 accredited media agencies and 500 journalists from the United States, China, Australia, and other countries as well as Canada. The walk was carried live by the ABC and CTV Television networks.
ABC forced Wallenda to wear a tether – a device that tied him to the wire in case he slipped and fell. Wallenda said repeatedly he did not want to use it and noted afterward that he didn’t need it.
“I just feel like a jackass wearing it,” he said to his father during the ABC telecast.
Wallenda was in radio contact with his father, Terry Troffer, throughout the walk. The television audience was able to hear the two of them speaking.
“Take your time,” Troffer said to his son. “Slow your rhythm down.”
Wallenda, who started to take more about his faith in the days leading up to the walk, could be heard praying several times and thanking Jesus. Wallenda also answered questions from ABC reporters during the walk.
Wallenda will be back in Niagara Falls for a plaque dedication at Table Rock today at noon. He was asked what’s next, and said he would like to become the first to walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon. He said he already has the necessary permits and expects to complete that goal within five years – maybe sooner.